Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Holy Grail...also known as finding an agent

I'm often asked two very pertinent questions: How did you get your book published and How did you get an agent to represent you?

Pretty much the answer to one is the answer to the other. Basically, I got published because I got an agent to represent me.

Now, it isn't a hard and fast rule, and this is only from my own personal point of view, so take my way as only one way.

Gone are the days when publishing houses employed readers to wade through the 'slush pile' of unsolicited manuscripts, and these days they rely on literary agents to weed through the mounds of submissions, and bring them only the best of the best. Now, then, agents don't have hundreds of readers on hand to do the reading for them, so something sent to them must firstly grab their attention, and secondly hold it. It's no good sending through something and say 'I know it starts slowly but it gets really fast after page 59' because, quite frankly they won't read that far. Your story must capture their attention from the first page. Make sure that there is something there: action, an intriguing question, a promise of things to come, on your first page, because if there's no hook, you can forget catching their attention.

There tends to be a standard protocol for sending submissions to agents. Check on their websites, check in a book like The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook where it tells you each agent's submission procedure, and stick to their rules. If they say 'No Unsolicited Submissions' send them a query letter first, ask them politely if they'd be interested in reading your book (I'll go deeper into this later), plus the standard first three chapters and short (1 page) synopsis. Don't just send them your entire manuscript and hope for the best - it likely won't even get looked at. If they say electronic submissions only - send your query in the form of an email. If they say 'no email submissions', then don't email them, send hard copy. Sounds obvious, but you'd be surprsied how many aspiring authors don't check the rules.

Anyway, there are far more knowledgeable articles on the above subject than I can do justice to so I'll leave it at that. Look at John Connolly's website for a great article on 'How To Get Published'. Instead, I'll give you a potted history of my road to publication so you can see what I did. If you want to emulate it, go ahead, it might get you the agent you need.

Here goes:

I've been writing since I was a child. Short stories, comic books, songs, poems, novels, articles, film scripts, you name it I've given it a go. Throughout the years I had a couple successes with articles in Martial Arts magazines, and a local magazine, but I always longed to be a fiction author.

Years ago, I started sending off short stories to competitions, but with no success. I then plucked up the courage to send some of my novels to publishers. Ten years ago, they still had submissions editors at some of the publishing houses and I did get one editor interested, but things finally went arse-end up and my aspirations fizzled out.

I continued sending off the letter, synopsis and sample chapters but could get no-one interested. I then realised to get anywhere, I needed representation from a reputable agent.

Anyone read Clive Barker? I once sent some stuff to his agent only to be told my writing was 'too dark' even for her. But that's another story.

Two things happened - call it a dual epiphany - I realised that the books I was writing weren't commercially viable, and I'd been aiming myself at the wrong agents.

I've already related the tale of how I decided I needed to come up with a commercially viable series that would interest a publisher in investing in me and my books, so won't go over that again. I also realised that I'd need a top agent if I was ever going to get anywhere.

Three years ago, Simon Kernick had hit the big time and was in every bookshop I ever visited. He had been picked as a 'Richard and Judy Book Club' summer read. He was storming the charts. I wondered, who is Simon's agent then? I researched and found that he was represented by Luigi Bonomi. A little more research later and I found that Luigi had been nominated as 'Agent of the Year', so I thought, why not go to the mover and shaker?

I was bricking it. I thought I'd get laughed all the way back to my little corner of Cumbria, but I bit the bullet and went for it.

I found Luigi's website, studied his submission protocol and stuck to it.

Next, I sat down and wrote a letter I hoped would say enough to catch his attention without going on too much. In brief, I mentioned the years that I'd been writing, the number of books I'd written and that I now felt I'd served my 'time' and learned my craft and was now looking to take my career further with professional representation. I outlined my plans for a series of books featuring a sustainable character firmly in the crime thriller mode, as I believed there was a gap in the market at that time for a 'British' thriller writer. I also explained that, because my books were international in aspect then they could also appeal to an international readership. I then mentioned who my books would appeal to, and mentioned some of the contemporary authors writing in a similar genre. I rounded it off with a brief description of myself and my background, and gave my martial arts coaching, my security and police careers as examples of how I could be marketed. Basically I was pitching a 'business' idea, the way you would to your bank manager when requesting funding for a business venture.

I rounded off my letter with the question, would he be interested in seeing the full book? Along with the letter, I sent a synopsis of the book and the first three chapters. And a SAE for their return.

Ok. Things didn't end there.
Some newspapers reported that I was 'saved from the slush pile by the agent's wife', making it all sound a little lurid. To put the record straight, Luigi had looked at my submission, but had discarded it but was urged to take another look at it by his wife - who hadn't popped in for lunch, but who is a respected editor in her own right - after she read my query letter and saw how committed to making a success of my writing I was. Luigi requested to see the entire manuscript, which I sent off forthwith.

Now, here's where the real secret lies. Luigi got back to me and said that the book required a major rewrite to make it ready for publication and was I prepared to give it a go. I answered yes. And good that I did because I was being tested.

I rewrote the book and delivered it.

Luigi had it read by five independent readers who gave feedback on the book. All had differences of opinion, but where they crossed over, I then rewrote the problems they'd found to put them right.

I went back and forward for five months, rewriting, editing and polishing, all under the guidance of Luigi - with no promise of representation at the end of the process.

I was asked to go and meet with Luigi - to see if I was willing to do the 700 mile round trip, to see if I was determined to work hard, to see if I was a fruit-cake or not - which I dutifully did. Again we discussed my ideas for future books and how I saw a future for my character, and I talked at length at how hard I was willing to work in order to achieve a successful writing career.

Finally, when my 'product' was ready - I'm pretty sure that Luigi was already putting out the feelers to publishing houses - I was sent the 'terms and conditions of representation', which I was asked to sign and return if I wished representation. I had them back to Luigi within hours via fax.

Within only a few days, my book went to auction and three large publishing houses bid against each other for publishing rights. And that was the start of my publishing career.

Now, in the saying it doesn't sound much, but it took me years to learn the craft, a few more to practice it, then a few more to get things right. I was lucky, but it wasn't all luck, it was also hard work, grit and determination. I knew what I wanted to do, and that evidently shone through when I was going through the process towards representation from Luigi.

So...bullet point time (without the bullet points):

Research agents who represent other authors in your genre

Check and double check their submission procedure and get it right

Send the required material in the correct format

Send a query letter telling the agent your background, plans for the future and any special interest that might help sell your book/s

Send a tight synopsis of your book

Send the correct number of sample chapters.

Make sure your submission is as professional as possible as basically you are requesting to enter into a business arrangement beneficial to you both.

Don't send out multiple submissions (not a hard and fast rule but it can come back and bite you on the arse further down the line if you do)

Be prepared to work hard and do take onboard the suggestions and advice offered by the agent.

Do not pester the agent for a decision, let their decision be based on the merits of your query pack. If they ask to see the full manuscript, send it and mark it 'requested material' so it doesn't get lost among the other hundred envelopes landing on the agent's doorstep.

If you're invited to go speak to the agent, do so. Don't make excuses. Go.

Work hard, do everything you can (legal and with dignity) to show how dedicated you are to your chosen profession. Then wait. Yes, expect to wait, because not everyone gets a deal in a few days like I did (after five months of to-ing and fro-ing don't forget), and don't expect huge advances. Huge advances are often reported in the newspapers but they're the exception to the norm. Don't go planning on writing while reclining on a beach with a cold one at hand. The reality is you'll be slogging your guts out at your usual writing place, holding down another job and still wishing for a mega-seller or three.

If an agent demands payment to read your work, don't do it. Anyone that does this is a shark.

Steer clear of 'internet agents' who promise to represent you for an up front fee. They usually ask you to send your book as an email, tell you how wonderful your book is, then ask you for money for administration purposes. Tell them to F**k Off, because they're charlatans and crooks. Any bonefide, honest agent won't ask you for money up-front. They will make money for you and take their commission from your earnings.

Hope this helps, and answers the question some of you have been hoping to ask.

Something I haven't mentioned: I sent my books out to dozens of publishers and to dozens of agents, prior to coming up with that dual epiphany and not a one of them was interested in publishing or representing me. Funnily enough, now that I'm a published author, those self-same publishers and agents have asked why I didn't go to them first. Go figure.


Sue H said...

Thanks for all this Matt. It's really helpful to have it from the horse's mouth - I'm more inclined to believe it can happen when it comes from someone we know and trust, rather than just reading it on a website or a 'how to' book.

All good pointers and the advice is a testimony of your willingness to encourage all of us (as yet) unpublished writers.

Perhaps some of us might just give you a run for your money, then?

Lee Hughes said...

As always informative and upfront Matt. I plan on just announcing I'm ready for publication and will let the agents come to me...

But if I catch you spelling query with two e's more than the four times you did we'll have to have a sit down. You did it with me and grammer, I'll return it with spelling!

Matt Hilton said...

Thanks Sue,
and thanks for the nudge to do this post.

In brief, it's about finding the right agent, at the right time, with the right book. I got it right...but in the words of the Lottery ads 'It could be you.'

Thanks Lee,
well spotted. You caught the little landmines I'd seeded throughout the post to try to trip up the unwary. The two 'e's' in queery that is. They were a hidden code, a subliminal message so to speak, that you should always do yet another edit and proof read before sending your work out into the world. I'm glad you spotted it, so I can now warn everyone. caught me bang to rights, mate. It's one of those words that always sneak by me. I know how to spell it, but my brain and fingers aren't always in sync, and my fingers always double tap that damn 'e'.

Alan said...

Thanks for the insight, Matt. It's good to see what goes on behind closed doors, especially from somebody who has made it. It's a long hard road, but speaking personally, I will never give up.

Col Bury said...

Brilliant that, Matt.
Fascinating to see a potted history of your writing journey. You certainly prove the point that if you persevere then eventually it can happen.
I'm sure many aspiring writers out there who read this will take heed of many of the pointers.
I particularly like the 'business plan' aspect and agree it's not just good writing the author has to bring to the table.
Thanks for taking the time to do this for us, bud.

Matt Hilton said...

Hi Alan,
you're right, it's a long hard road, but it's well worth it when you make it over each of the hurdles that get in your way.
My reason for posting this was twofold: One, to show that it ain't easy: two, it can be done.
Stick at it, mate, that's the secret. Keep going past all the pits and drops and you'll get there in the end.

Cheers Col,
aye, it's about selling not just your book, but also yourself. People talk about building 'a platform', but really you have to start out trying to build 'a brand'. People don't vacuum the floor these days they 'Hoover' it, and they don't drink cola, they drink 'Coke', so when they're reading a book you want them reading 'Bury'.

Sean Black said...

That was a great post, Matt.

I think that very often the problem for writers is that they start looking for an agent too soon. Either they're not quite there yet as a writer or the manuscript they're seeking to place needs work.

I spent close to six months writing the first draft of Lockdown and then ended up throwing the whole lot out - all 85,000 words. I knew at the 40,000 word mark that I was going to throw it out but I finished it anyway. Then I wrote my new first draft and did a fairly extensive set of rewrites before I went agent shopping.

The other point you make that I'd like to second is that everyone who's got an agent, got a deal and been published has gone through a lot of rejection. It can be very discouraging and painful at times, which is why I think the healthiest way to function as a writer is to not to dwell on the disappointments but instead to focus in on the work.


Matt Hilton said...

Dead right, Sean. And thanks for the input, I'm sure everyone here will gain a lot from your experience, as well.

I second you on the not looking for an agent too soon aspect. In hindsight, what I was sending out ten years ago wasn't up to scratch, and I see that now.

Of course, different strokes for different folks applies, as well, and some are ready sooner than others. It just took me that much longer before the epiphany struck. Mind you,sometimes sending out to an agent or publisher and being rejected can be a good thing - if they offer constructive criticism, that is. I learned a lot from the little hints I received about why my books were rejected, and ensured I put them right the next time round.

And your final comment is very succinct. If we dwell on the rejections, we would never get anywhere. It's like you say, concentrate on the writing, get things as good as can be, and then try again.

By the way, that was a very brave move, ditching your first MS. But...I bet you're glad you did.

All the best, and I'm looking out for your next book, mate. 'Deadlock' is coming in July, if I'm not mistaken?

Sean Black said...

With all of this the bottom line is deciding what works for you, so you're quite right.

Ditching the first draft was especially difficult because at that time I'd stopped writing TV (my day job) to focus on the novel, so we were living on our savings. When you're a husband and a dad with a mortgage to pay you don't take those kind of gambles lightly.

However, I knew that I had to get the manuscript in the best shape I possibly could if I was to have a shot at getting an agent and selling it.

Lockdown is out in paperback on the 24th of June and Deadlock follows in hardback on the 22nd of July.

I have a book trailer for Lockdown up now on my blog, which can be found at

Having not been much of a blogger, I'm also going to be blogging fairly regularly in the lead up to publication about how I came to research and write the Ryan Lock books.


Matt Hilton said...

Yeah, a huge gamble indeed.

I'll take a look over at your blog and also add a post here to direct some of the guys over. I'm sure they'll love to read your adventures in publishing as well.

Cheers, Sean. Hey, are you doing Thrillerfest or Bouchercon this year? I'm off to Crimefest next week, too. Hope to see you along the way.

Deano said...

That's a great post Matt, and one that really helps aspiring writers to understand how to approach agencies in a professional manner, and what may come afterward.

I'm currently at the full-manuscript stage with LBA, and suffering the usual cold-sweats, anxiety attacks, heart palpatations etc etc.

It's a long old road, fifteen years for me, and having any kind of information on what to expect is extremely helpful, even if in the end it's simply to be told that "I'm not good enough". Yet.

Should I succeed, I intend to put up a web-site that has examples of my approach letters... may prove helpful for others reaching the submission stage.


Matt Hilton said...

Hi Deano,
great to hear from you here, and with the news of how far on you are at the moment. Your idea for a website with examples is a great one, and I'm sure there are many aspiring authors visiting here that will become regular visitors.

All the best and here's to great things


Lily Childs said...

Thanks Matt, so much, for this vital insight.

Whilst not ready for this yet, I am 50k into two novels, plus outlines for half-a-dozen more.

I know that you 'did it alone' - what would you recommend for those of us who need some mentoring?

Matt Hilton said...

Thanks Lily,
I think you've just given me an idea for another post. Watch this space and I'll do something on mentoring - or at least my take and ideas on the subject.

S J Bradley said...

Hi Matt, good post. Nobody knows rejection like a writer, right?!

Just out of interest, there's a good blog called QueryShark ( ) It's full of critiqued queries, and really demystifies the process of writing a good query. It really shows how a query can improve through work, and why an agent / publisher might quite quickly discard a query before even getting to the manuscript. Enjoy!

Matt Hilton said...

Thanks SJ,
I'll take a look, and I'm sure there are other readers here who'll take a look as well. Thanks for the head's-up.

Dean Ford said...

Found this interview with the 2010 Agent of the Year, Luigi Bonomi - very informative for those starting their search for representation...